Stars’ post-game silence speaks volumes
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Mark Scheifele doesn’t owe the media anything. Neither does Kyle Connor. They’re entitled to reject requests for post-game interviews — within reason, per NHL regulations — as they did Tuesday at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., following a disappointing 5-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
However, the two Winnipeg Jets skaters do have to answer to their teammates and coaches, and they owe them an apology for a self-inflicted and completely avoidable mess they’ve now created.
Tired old questions and concerns about accountability, maturity, coachability and the quality of this club’s core are once again up for debate around water coolers and social-media circles following the debacle that went down at the end of what was an otherwise encouraging 2-1-0 road trip.
In case you missed it, Scheifele and Connor, along with newcomer Nino Niederreiter, were stapled to the bench for the final 11:45 of the second period after a dreadful start to their night. Their team was down 3-1, and they had been on the ice for all three Hurricanes goals. Attention to defensive detail was clearly lacking, and an obviously frustrated head coach Rick Bowness had seen enough.
He told the trio to take a seat.
It goes without saying this was a significant development that warranted further investigation. It’s one thing to slash the ice time of your fourth-line forwards and fifth and sixth defencemen. It’s another matter entirely when it’s three established stars who combine to make more than US$17 million per season and have produced 87 goals and 81 assists already this year.
That, folks, is a powerful shot across the bow.
Scheifele is the team’s top goal scorer, the first-ever Jets 2.0 draft pick and a formal member of the leadership group. The alternate captain, who turned 30 Wednesday, is also on record as saying he wanted Bowness to hold players’ feet to the fire, implying two prior coaches (Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry) had failed to do so. He’s also a pending unrestricted free agent in just over a year from now, and whether he stays or goes is a major storyline that will have far-reaching implications on the franchise.
When you wear a letter on your jersey, answering questions on behalf of your team is part of the deal, in good times and bad.
Connor is the team’s best pure sniper but mired in a miserable slump with just one goal in the last 11 games, and none in the past seven. Like Scheifele, he was vocal late last season about the need for more structure and discipline. The reigning Lady Byng Trophy winner is clearly frustrated, too, as we’ve seen by a recent loss of on-ice composure at times. The slash he delivered to the legs of Florida’s Aaron Ekblad on Saturday was out of character. It was originally called a major but reduced to a minor — his ninth already this year. Connor has more penalty minutes in the last seven games (six) than in 82 last year (four).
What Scheifele and Connor, 27 — two of Winnipeg’s most talented, important, accomplished and relied-upon players — thought about Bowness’ message was an obvious line of post-game questioning. That’s Journalism 101. There was just one problem: Both flat-out refused to speak. And efforts from the club’s PR staff to convince them otherwise went nowhere.
This would be troubling enough. But what happened next threw additional fuel on the fire.
As the only Winnipeg newspaper writer on the road, I was asked for a “Plan C” after being told neither Scheifele nor Connor was resurfacing to face the music.
I threw out Niederreiter’s name, given that he was the third member of that top line. To be honest, he wasn’t high on my priority list. Niederreiter has been terrific since coming over Nashville in a late February trade. He even scored in the third period Tuesday, once the benching was lifted and he was moved away from Scheifele and Connor, giving him points in seven straight games (four goals, three assists).
He was, in my eyes, collateral damage on this night. Caught in the crossfire if you will. But Scheifele and Connor’s decision had left no other choice.
Fortunately, Niederreiter had no issue with talking. And the classy 30-year-old put on a clinic in accountability and transparency and leadership, saying the exact kinds of things you’d want to hear from any player in his position.
“We didn’t deserve to play,” Niederreiter told me. “We just simply weren’t good enough. We weren’t engaged. We weren’t doing the job we were supposed to do. We definitely deserved that. I mean, (Bowness) definitely made that message pretty clear. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to show up, especially this time of year and yeah. It was definitely unacceptable.”
“We definitely deserved that. I mean, (Bowness) definitely made that message pretty clear. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to show up, especially this time of year and yeah. It was definitely unacceptable.”–Nino Niederreiter
Truly impressive. The kind of message that will play well with his coach, his teammates and no doubt the fans who, by purchasing tickets and concessions and merchandise, help pay his salary. The fact he was so willing to step in there, mere weeks after joining the organization, while his two tenured linemates would not speaks volumes.
Look, I understand Scheifele and Connor were frustrated. Everyone on the team was. But the optics of how this played out, combined with recent history in this hockey-mad market, are sub-optimal. As is essentially hanging Niederreiter out to dry. I wonder how that plays within the room?
When this season began, Jets players put together a mission statement of sorts, outlining the code they would follow on a daily basis. It was all-for-one, one-for-all. This was to ensure no repeat performance of last year, where public finger-pointing and division became readily apparent as their playoff hopes began circling the drain. They all signed it. Scheifele and Connor included.
For the longest time, it seemed to have a positive effect on the on-ice product. The Jets were winning, challenging for top spot on both the Central Division and the Western Conference. They were working their tails off on a nightly basis, even when injuries decimated the lineup.
Now? Just four wins in the last 14 games have them perilously close to falling out of a playoff spot. The Jets have become the picture of inconsistency. And the best players, such as Scheifele and Connor, are clearly driving their coach to take drastic action in an attempt to light a spark.
Here’s the thing. This all could have gone away rather quickly. Scheifele and Connor could have fielded a few questions, just like Niederreiter did without issue, say what needed to be said and move on. Case closed. Story over. Instead, this will become a “thing” for at least a couple more days.
The Jets have become the picture of inconsistency. And the best players, such as Scheifele and Connor, are clearly driving their coach to take drastic action in an attempt to light a spark.
The Jets arrived back in town in the wee hours Wednesday but otherwise had the day off. They’ll return to Canada Life Centre on Thursday to face the NHL’s top team, the Boston Bruins. I can guarantee a much larger swarm of media than what was on the road in Raleigh will be requesting to speak with Scheifele and Connor following the morning skate. Again, Journalism 101.
It will be interesting to see how they handle the second chance they’ll get to address the now jumbo-sized elephant in the room.
Ultimately, actions speak louder than words. Scheifele and Connor can make the biggest statement by going out and pushing the Jets into the playoffs. They certainly have that power when playing the right way. No doubt that’s what Bowness is banking on.
But if they don’t? Well, that’s really going to get everyone talking.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.